High schoolers reach out to Camden youngsters

Samajai Atkins (left), 8, and Selah Johnson, 9, make visors with (from left) Veronica Gunther, Woodstown High School; Alexis Esposito, Williamstown High; Teaunah Moulden, Woodstown; Abigail Hastings, Schalick; and Alexandra Gould, Millville.
Samajai Atkins (left), 8, and Selah Johnson, 9, make visors with (from left) Veronica Gunther, Woodstown High School; Alexis Esposito, Williamstown High; Teaunah Moulden, Woodstown; Abigail Hastings, Schalick; and Alexandra Gould, Millville. (AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 09, 2013

Grooving to the "Water Cycle Rap Song" and making bracelets in the Feelings room: Fun. Dancing to Aretha Franklin's "Respect" and playing musical chairs in the Respect room: Also fun. Making kites out of paper bags in the Smile room: Definitely fun.

But nothing beat the Happiness room for 6-year-old McKenna Nichols: "You make sun visors and you play with the balloons."

McKenna was one of 15 children from the summer reading program of Cooper Learning Center in Camden learning from 26 rising high school seniors in a two-week program at Rowan University's College of Education.

On Wednesday, teams of high school students put into action lesson plans they developed in the Rowan Urban Teacher Academy Program.

McKenna and her classmates rotated through five themed classrooms. Lessons were based on the children's book Have You Filled a Bucket Today? by Carol McCloud. The young students carried buckets that they decorated and filled with crafts made at 20-minute stops at each station.

"I learned, be nice, don't be a bully, and happiness," McKenna said.

In the Happiness room, Teaunah Moulden, 17, said she had always felt the calling to be a teacher. The Rowan program gave her an opportunity to explore teaching students from an urban environment, to which she said she feels drawn.

"I'm very concerned about the shortage of teachers in the urban setting," said Moulden, who attends Woodstown High School in Salem County.

Like other students in the program, Moulden expressed concern about correcting misperceptions of urban students and overcoming stereotypes about Camden.

"I just feel like even though they maybe don't know as much or have as much, they have the same opportunities," Moulden said, as three young girls sat a nearby table choosing animal stickers and writing on their visors something that makes them happy. "They're very smart, smarter than when people stereotype them."

Program director Lorraine Ricchezza, 44, tries to challenge the high school students' ideas by leading discussions in the first week about Camden, teaching low-income and minority students, then taking the students to the city.

They visit with the 15 children and accompany them to the Adventure Aquarium. They take a short walk from the Cooper Medical School of Rowan University toward Cooper University Hospital, then head to the waterfront; the tour includes lunch, a boat ride, Walt Whitman's house, Campbell's Field, and the Victor apartment building.

Between the city-centered activities and working with the children, Highland Regional High School's Kyle Louis said he had begun to rethink some of his assumptions.

"They're just kids. They just want to learn and have fun. They're just normal," Louis, 17, said in the Feelings room. "I'm starting to understand that everyone's the same. I grew up with the perspective that Camden's bad, don't go there."

For Aleeyah Oliphant, a Williamstown High School senior, Camden was familiar territory. She often visits family members who live in East Camden.

But her understanding of the city has deepened, she said, and working collaboratively on a lesson plan was a new experience. Wednesday's classroom activities were designed by the students; they brainstormed about materials, decorations, and room management.

Working with five others to put together the lesson plan was not easy at first, Oliphant acknowledged. "I'm usually independent. . . . It was tough having to understand other people's point of view."

While recruitment is not an explicit goal, the program does promote Rowan's College of Education. Ricchezza, said she was happy each year to see a handful of the previous year's alumni enter the school. Some fees are waived for students accepted to the school, and they can apply for a $1,000-per-semester scholarship if they choose a program of study in liberal studies, literacy studies, and elementary education.

Having graduated from Glassboro High School, Nick Stranix, 18, returned to the urban teacher program this year as one of three "mentors" who help the rising seniors. With his desire to teach in an urban area and his familiarity with Rowan, Stranix said, the school was a good fit.

By participating in the urban teacher program last year as a student and this year as a mentor, he said, he's setting himself up to study elementary education.

"That's why it's great, too: To get to know the professors," Stranix said.

Monika Shealey, the new dean of the school, hopes the program will start to create a pipeline of students like Stranix. Developing a familiarity with urban teaching and fostering a sense of commitment can serve as a "counter to what we hear about teaching," Shealey said, things such as low pay and lack of impact.

"If we can start early and get them interested in not only teaching, but teaching traditionally underserved populations," Shealey said, "this program offers them an opportunity early to change that narrative."

Contact Jonathan Lai at 856-779-3220, jlai@phillynews.com, or on Twitter @elaijuh.

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